Negril: How it started
People often ask why I started Negril, so I tell them about when I was in Jamaica 5 years ago and noticed a small chain of restaurants selling jerk chicken. I thought it would be nice to have this in London, so I rang up the head office and asked if they offered it as a franchise or if they planned to open up a branch in London. They said no to both questions; it was not yet available as a franchise, and their immediate plans were to open in Miami. I was disappointed and kept on calling them, but still they said no. So I decided I would start my own restaurant, but I had no idea how!
I wanted a place that educated customers about Jamaican foods, offered healthy nourishing meals at a reasonable price, used quality and healthy ingredients, was authentic and provided good service for customers.
Why is the café called Negril?
When I could not think of a name for my new restaurant, my business partner at the time suggested „Negril‟, and it seemed perfect. Negril is the name of a place in western Jamaica; it is laid back, rustic and relaxing. It became popular in the 1970s, when all the hippies started going there. I felt the name reflected what the café was about. The next question customers always ask is “Are you from Negril?” No, I am from the eastern side of the island.
The café on Brixton Hill was the first premises I looked at—I fell in love immediately, it seemed perfect. It had outside seating and I could have a garden, but my business partner was not convinced, so we looked around London, almost closing a deal on a place in Camberwell, but happily for me came back to Brixton Hill. And soon enough Negril was born!
Recently I went back to Jamaica and saw the chain I had asked for a franchise, and in hindsight I am so happy that they refused. Being independent has allowed me the freedom to do my own thing and bring in my own values, such as organic coffee, free-range chicken, using real butter instead of margarine, organic eggs, using better quality ingredients, and forgoing MSG and hydrogenated fats. Yes, it is more expensive to do it this way but I feel it is better in the long run.Customers often describe the food as “good, honest food”, which is a fantastic compliment for us—it means we are on the right track.
A brief History of Jamaican food
Jamaica is a melting pot of people—the island‟s motto is “out of many, one people”—and the food reflects the fusion of cultures perfectly. What we call Jamaican food is in fact a combination of foods from all over the world.
The food is unique because of the complex ethnic makeup of the people, who came or were brought to Jamaica. Today‟s Jamaicans are descendants of the Arawak Indians, European colonists, African slaves, Indians, Chinese, Germans and Syrians. Jamaica‟s cuisine is a product of this diverse cultural heritage, and the food tells the story of its people.
Most Jamaicans are a mixture of these nations. In my family, for instance, my maternal great grandmother was Indian, my grandmother told me her grandfather had long hair and wore huge earrings and sailed (he must have been a pirate!), whilst her grandmother was Maroon, and my paternal grandfather‟s parents were European and Maroon. The story is similar all over Jamaica.
The native Jamaicans, the Arawak Indians, ate food indigenous to the island; sweet potatoes, cassava, guavas and pineapples. They had lived there for 500 years before Columbus arrived. When the Spanish came to the island in 1494, they introduced citrus fruits, coconuts, livestock and salted codfish. Some dishes that are still very popular today, such as escovitche fish or beans with saltfish, originated in Spain. The Spanish brought Africans to the island as slaves, who blended their traditional African foods with staples found on the island, and introduced ackees, plantains, peppers and mangos.
In 1670, the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish, bringing with them tropical fruits from India, China and Malaysia. The English also introduced traditional dishes such as roast beef, Easter buns, Christmas puddings and jams. These dishes are now traditional Jamaican dishes. Jamaicans‟ love for porridge and soup is thought to be a legacy of the Scots.
Even the Polynesian islands play a role in Jamaican cooking. Most of us remember the movie „Mutiny on the Bounty‟, but do not know that this particular ship carried breadfruit, which was loaded on board from the islands of Tahiti and Timor. In the movie the crew took over the ship, forced the captain into a small boat to fend for himself, and threw the breadfruit, which they considered “strange fruit”, overboard. Breadfruit was brought to the island by Captain Bligh in 1793, and is now a staple in Jamaica, eaten with stews, roast meat and ackee and saltfish.
Slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1807 and the freed slaves wanted nothing to do with the plantations, so Indian and Chinese labourers were brought to the island to work on the plantations. The Indians brought curry with them and the Chinese introduced rice, which are now very much staples in Jamaican homes.
This diverse mix of people contributed to what we know today as Jamaican foods. Most of the traditional dishes are fusions of these cultures. For example, Jamaica‟s national dish “ackee and saltfish” is a combination of „ackee‟ from Africa and salted codfish from Spain. The staple of rice and peas is a combination of Chinese rice, African peas, and coconuts brought in by the Spanish. Even „jerk chicken‟, most commonly recognised as Jamaican food, is itself a collision of Arawak and African cooking styles and techniques.
The Rastafarian movement, which began in the 1930s, added another dimension to the island‟s cuisine. Rastafarians eat ital foods, which have encouraged many Jamaicans, including non Rastafarians, to shun processed foods, drink natural fruit and vegetable juices, and to eat in a way that sustains the land.
In Jamaica, regardless of religion, origins, or class, we all eat the same foods and dance to the same music. The people share a common culture that is Jamaican and the food reflects this rich and creative diversity!
Jerk chicken is the first thing that most people think of when they think of Jamaican food.
Jerk came about when the native Arawak Indians got together with the Maroons. The Maroons were African slaves who were freed by the Spanish and resisted capture by the British when they took over the island. In order to avoid seizure by the English they needed to cook meat without giving off too much smoke and be able to store it for days. The Arawaks showed the Maroons how to cook the meat under the earth using hot rocks and the Maroons added their own spices, such as peppers, together Arawak spices, such as allspice. The original method was to make a grate using thin strips of green pimento wood, on which they slowly cooked the meat, enhancing its flavor with that of the wood. This grate was called a barbacoa, and the word „barbecue‟ comes from this early Arawak cooking method, known as „jerking‟. Jerking the meat allowed it to be preserved more easily.
Back then they used mostly wild pigs, while today jerk chicken is more popular than pork, and is usually jerked using bbq drums.
“Whenever I need nourishment I have jerk chicken
with rice and peas and coleslaw.”
When we started we were using a commercial brand of jerk marinade, but the company was so unreliable that I had to develop my own marinade. After many trials, finally we came up with one that worked and it‟s all natural—no funkiness and no MSG.
Free-Range Jerk Chicken
For a time I had many customers who could not eat the chicken because they only eat free-range chicken, for moral reasons, which I totally understood, coming from an organic background myself. We were then faced with the challenge of sourcing free-range chicken that was reasonably priced so that it was affordable both to us and our customers. But in December 2006 we found a local supplier and the jerk chicken has been free range ever since!
“When I want to splurge, jerk chicken with festiva
l and coleslaw does the trick. The sweetness
of the festival balances well with the spiciness of the
Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and saltfish is Jamaica‟s national dish; it is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, I find it very difficult to describe the taste—although I have searched through many books to find an accurate description, I‟ve found none. I can tell you that it looks like scrambled eggs, but taste-wise you will have to try it for yourself. The ackee itself is a fruit grown on trees in bright orange pods that open up when the ackees are ripe.
Curried goat is perhaps the second most popular dish people associate with Jamaica. This dish was introduced by the Indians who arrived on the island in the late 19th century, brining with them curries and rotis.
There is no real favourite when it comes to curries, I love all of them. The bean curry is nourishing and tastes very healthy, the pumpkin curry is divine, the chicken curry is a firm favourite for everybody, and the only reason that I am not vegetarian is that I simply cannot resist curried goat!
Rotis are flat breads that look very similar to the Mexican tortilla. The roti we used at Negril are dhal roti—stuffed with chick peas and spices, these are used to make roti wraps, which are filled with jerk chicken or curry, with fresh lettuce or spinach. The wraps are our most popular takeaway item—for some people, once they have had a roti wrap that‟s all they will ever have.
The Calypso Chicken Sandwich
The calypso chicken sandwich came about because of one of our waitresses— for lunch she would always have a jerk chicken sandwich and insisted that the chef add roasted peppers to it. Then one day I had it and felt as if I was in food heaven! We decided to put it in a burger bun and add fresh spinach, and it‟s been a Negril classic ever since.
If ever you want to eat something that is light but bursting with flavour, the Caribbean Chicken Salad is what you need. The combination of spicy chicken breast, sweet fresh mango, fresh spinach and crunchy sweet peppers is simply divine.
Ital is the Rastafarian style of cooking and eating. In its purest form it is strictly a vegan diet without any added salt or preservatives. It mainly consists of spicy stews, tofu, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and plenty of raw and live foods. Less strict Rastafarians will eat chicken or fish, but no pork—some of their rules are very similar to the Jewish Orthodox way of eating.
“My older brothers are Rastafarians so there is no
way I could open a café and not feature some ital
When we first started out we were using a commercially made veggie burger, which had to be deep fried—this did not sit comfortably with me. When I came across a recipe that used beans and fresh carrots, I added my own little bits, and yes! Finally a bean burger that I liked!
“Just eating the bean burger makes me feel healthy!”
The pumpkin curry is a fairly new addition to the menu and was an instant hit.
The ital salad
I have been trying to find a nice vegan salad for the last two years, ever since we have been open, that would appeal to vegetarian and non vegetarians alike. Recently I got back in touch with an old supplier from my previous business who makes fresh tofu in his factory in Brick Lane. We use his smoked tofu for this salad and it tastes wonderful, even if you are not a tofu fan you will love this.
Platters are great for sharing—you get a little bit of every thing. On the Negril platter you can have either jerk chicken or bbq ribs, or both. The Curry platter is a new addition to our menu and so far it‟s been very well received.
We make all our own cakes—the idea of buying in just does not appeal to me.
In my previous business I suffered from a cash flow crisis, because the companies I dealt with never paid on time, so even though I was profitable I had no cash, which made things difficult, as all my suppliers were small organic farmers and producers who needed to be paid on time. One of them suggested I sell cakes in the markets they traded at in order to generate some cash flow. So I did—I got a stall at Portobello Road and Old Spitalfields Market and sold cakes. I sold out on my first day of trading! I use those same recipes for the cakes we sell at Negril.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.